Six years ago, as 15-year-old Melinda Darnell was waiting to die after a three-year battle with brain cancer, she turned to her mother, Mary, and said, "Don't be afraid to die. Don't be afraid of being with God. See, it's not goodbye. Just see you later, Mummy."
Now Mary Darnell, 42, is waging her own battle with cancer, in the same hospital, at one time recently occupying the room two floors directly below where her daughter died after her highly publicized fight to live.
"It's just like history repeating itself. It's almost scary," said Mary's mother, Nora Jenkins, who lives in West Virginia but has been at Darnell's bedside almost every day for the past two months. "When Melinda was dying, we didn't know if she would make it to Christmas. We don't know if Mary will make it to Thanksgiving."
Family members also do not know where the money will come from if they have to pay the mounting bills. Doctors estimate the medical costs could total above $100,000, and her family says Darnell's insurance policy lapsed before her two major operations and hospitalization.
She has been unable to pay the rent on her Alexandria apartment, the home for a daughter and two grandchildren Darnell had been helping to raise, and her family fears eviction.
Darnell has been in George Washington University Hospital since September. She only slightly resembles the dynamic and determined mother who was thrust into the media limelight in 1976, when The Washington Star publicized Melinda's fight with cancer in a series of articles, and comedian Jerry Lewis attended a benefit in Melinda's behalf.
She lies on her side, slightly curled in a fetal position. Her eyes are closed, her face and fingers puffy. Sometimes she can move her arms slightly. At times she cannot move at all without assistance.
She is so weak that it takes several seconds for her to greet visitors with a "hello"; more extensive conversation is virtually beyond her. She is in constant pain.
Darnell learned she had cancer about a year ago. She received radiation treatment, but in September discovered that the tumor had persisted and that her cancer had advanced considerably.
Now, two operations later, doctors say Darnell has made it this far because she is such a "fighter." She's a "spunky and courageous woman," said one physician.
"Every doctor who has come in touch with her loves her and cares for her. She is an exceptional person. She never complains," said her surgeon, Dr. Herbert Kotz, a clinical professor at George Washington University Medical School. "The admiration that the doctors here have for her is considerable. We only hope that we can be as brave as she is, if we are in similar circumstances."
Darnell's family says that part of her courage comes from Melinda's ordeal. Darnell knows she's dying, according to her mother. Is she afraid of death? "I don't think so. Melinda wasn't," said Jenkins.
But while Melinda's ordeal gave Darnell strength, it also brought some long-term problems, according to Mary's sister, Ann Teubert, another West Virginia relative who has been in Washington frequently because of the illness.
After Melinda's death on Jan. 1, 1977, Mary, her husband Douglas and their two daughters had to deal with the pent-up stress and put the pieces back together.
Within a year, Mary and Doug separated. Their oldest daughter, Vanessa, married briefly. But Teubert said an enormous amount of responsibility during Melinda's illness had fallen on Vanessa, 24, and she and her two children eventually moved in with Mary.
Darnell's husband has stayed outside the family circle since the separation, and the other daughter, Clarassia, 19, is just barely getting started on her own, according to family members.
Darnell's mother, Nora Jenkins, has been trying to pay some of Darnell's household bills and to help feed Vanessa and her two children. Jenkins' husband recently died of a heart attack and her only source of income is a monthly $395 Social Security check and a monthly $254 check for black lung benefits earned by her late husband. She also has bills to pay in West Virginia, where she has helped raise her granddaughter after her daughter-in-law died a few years ago.
The family says the Alexandria welfare office is trying to get food stamps for the family. Vanessa is also expected to start receiving $310 each month under the Aid to Dependent Children program for the care of her two small children.
Jenkins said the welfare office would like the Darnell family to move to an apartment with a rent lower than the $480 a month she is now paying. Jenkins say she understands the request, "but we don't have the money to move. And I'm afraid it would just kill Mary to lose her home."
One thing that is already paid for is Darnell's grave, beside Melinda's, in West Virginia.
"I don't know how I'm going to get her there," Jenkins said softly. "I'll just have to. I have to hold on to her home until she dies. And then I have to take her home to West Virginia."